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Five ways the camera doesn’t see what you do – overcoming camera vision.

Camera vision of the world is very different from the way that we see it visually. In effect, the job of the photographers often to try make a picture that looks like things did visually while using a device that doesn’t see the world in the same way. Figuring out the difference in what camera sees and what you see and compensating for  it can make all the difference to your photography. So what can we do to make pictures that are more visually pleasing?


1.   Think about backgrounds.   When we look at somebody we genuinely don’t notice the background behind them. Try it – you will see that when you’re looking at someone the background is genuinely indistinct. We always think that it gives a roughly 80 mm F1 .8 look when you’re paying attention. if we’ve got this right, it means that the background behind the person is more visible in the photograph taken with a regular kit lens about F5 .6 than visually. So all of a sudden in the picture there’s a whole load of stuff in the background that you didn’t notice – it’s not your fault! How visual system is designed to pay attention to things that are close and worry less about things that are far away. Even Fox Talbot referred to the camera as “indiscriminate” in the way that it picks up detail from all over the place. This can be very distracting and can be countered by you thinking about this all the time while taking pictures what is this background going to look like? Look around the subject, behind the subject –  think about the background. The lamp post growing out of the head picture is not your fault – you didn’t see it but the camera did a bad job of representing what you saw visually. Camera vision strikes again!

2.  Think about distances.   Camera focusing systems are basically rangefinders. Everything the same distance away will be in focus regardless of where it is in the frame. Human vision is not like this – we have a lot more light-sensitive cells in the centre of our retina, and objects at the left or right are out of focus even if they are the same distance away.  Try it – looking at your computer monitor now you can see that anything on your desk that is the same distance away from your eye is not in focus as it would be in a photograph. This is why having a bit of branch poking in from the side of the frame in a landscape can be so distracting – it’s more in focus than it would have been visually. So how we fix this is in the composition, recognise that anything the same distance away as the subject will be equally in focus and therefore equally as important in the composition whether we want it or not.

3.   Think about colour brightness. Our friend Geoff photographed some Ferrari cars for a magazine. Most Ferraris are flame red, but occasionally there are yellow ones and even white ones. Geoff found that the reds reflected much less light than the yellow ones and he had to take this into account with the metering. Not big problem, but visually a Ferrari looks about as bright as a yellow one but not to the camera. People have evolved to be very sensitive to red, and so we tend to see a dark red shade as lighter than it really is. Since the camera is metering in monochrome, a dark red rose looks like charcoal grey and a red Ferrari looks much darker than a yellow one. So you may need a little exposure compensation for this –a little negative exposure compensation for the red car  and a little positive exposure compensation for the yellow one.

4.   Think about unimportant bright coloured things. We assume that bright colours things are important, so use them for all our emergency equipment – red fire extinguishers, yellow safety handles, black and yellow striped edging. I’m not suggesting that emergency equipment should be painted beige, but this stuff is everywhere and can dominate a portrait picture in the background even if it’s out of focus. The viewer thinks what is that red thing so be very aware of brightly coloured things in Iraq which the common situation with children or even fire alarms etc in a corporate situation. In camera vision bright colours run important but not to the viewer.

5.   Think about 3-D. If you are lucky enough to have two working eyes, you see the world in three-dimensional shapes. Your brain puts all this together and shows you shape of the world. Babies spend a lot of time learning how this all works – reaching out and grasping things to learn how what they see visually compose with the real world of objects. Obviously camera vision has only one lens, and one eye so the world is rendered flat.    Many of our photography mentoring service customers send us  landscape pictures that are badly composed because trees in the foreground and trees in the background blend in together. These are normally accompanied with complaints that it doesn’t really look like it did visually. So we need to keep similar toned objects separated from each other in our composition, and it’s one reason why the landscape pictures come out particularly well on a misty morning, so the background trees and paler than the foreground and separate out giving us a sense of distance.



It’s interesting that despite all the camera technology and vast amounts of money that have been invested in camera design, the fundamental differences between human vision and camera vision and never really been addressed. As a result, even the most expensive camera can take disappointing pictures that look nothing like it appeared at the time.  The art of taking good pictures is partly about recognising this and overcoming it with technical know-how, thoughtful framing and composition.  The camera is less important than your eye in deciding what to take and how to make it look realistic.  That’s why we’re here.

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